Mongolian Cuckoos on the move

Back in early June, five cuckoos were fitted with tags at Khurkh Ringing Station in Mongolia. The first one fitted with a tag was an Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus optatus), believed to be the first ever individual of this species to be tracked. The other four were Common Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus). All five were given names by schoolchildren in the local community and in Ulan Bataar.

The next six weeks were fairly quiet for the four Common Cuckoos, all of which remained in the vicinity of Khurkh. However, the Oriental Cuckoo (named NOMAD) was clearly still on migration when he was caught in early June and continued north to breeding grounds on the central Siberian plane.

Now, into August, the cuckoos are already on the move. NOMAD, after only four weeks on his breeding grounds in central Siberia, has begun to move south and is currently close to the border of Irkutsk Province in Russia. Three of the four Common Cuckoos (NAMJAA, ONON and Captain KHURKH) have also begun their journey south with only BAYAN remaining in the vicinity of Khurkh. After being tagged within a few kilometres of each other, more than 2,800km now separates the five birds.

After being tagged within a few kilometres of each other in June, more than 2,800km separates NOMAD and NAMJAA in early August.

Over the next few weeks and months, following their progress is sure to be a roller-coaster ride. We expect the four Common Cuckoos to head into south Asia before crossing the Arabian Sea to Africa. However, the migration route and wintering grounds of NOMAD, the Oriental Cuckoo, will be new to science. From sight records we believe NOMAD’s most likely destination is southeast Asia or possibly Australia. However, nobody knows for sure, and one thing is for certain.. there will be some surprises along the way!

The schoolchildren in Mongolia are excited to follow ‘their’ birds and already the project has reached many who wouldn’t ordinarily take an interest in migratory birds.

Local schoolchildren gave names to the cuckoos and will be following them as they flee the cold of the Mongolian winter until their return the following spring.

You, too, can follow the progress of NOMAD, Captain KHURKH (will he boldly go where no cuckoo has gone before?), NAMJAA, ONON and BAYAN at the dedicated Mongolian Cuckoo Project page or via the BTO’s international projects page and on Twitter @BirdingBeijing or WeChat “BirdingBeijing”.

If you enjoy following these birds, please consider making a donation, no matter how small, to the JustGiving site towards the ongoing satellite fees. All contributions will go directly to BTO and 100% of the funds will go towards the cost of the satellite fees only.

Big thanks to the project partners, the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and to the Oriental Bird Club (OBC) and Mr Dick Newell for their financial support.

Thanks also to you, the reader, for following the Mongolian Cuckoos. Isn’t migration amazing?

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The Mongolia Cuckoo Project

Followers of Birding Beijing’s Twitter feed (@BirdingBeijing) will know that Team Cuckoo (Chris Hewson of BTO, Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley and Terry Townshend) has been in Mongolia, partnering with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC) to begin a new cuckoo tracking project.

The Mongolia Cuckoo Project is a partnership between the WSCC and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), facilitated by Birding Beijing and supported by the Oriental Bird Club.

The project builds on the success of the Beijing Cuckoo Project and aims to discover more about the wintering grounds and migration routes of cuckoos in East Asia, as well as engaging the public through naming and following the birds.

From 5-8 June, the team was based at Khurkh Bird Banding Station in northern Mongolia, an 8-hour drive from the capital Ulan Bator. Here, Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, the manager of the ringing station, works with volunteers to ring migratory birds each spring and autumn. The site is stunning – a lush valley with a tributary of the river Onon at its heart, nestled between hills of rolling grassland just south of the Russian border.

The Khurkh Bird Ringing Station seen from adjacent hills
The ger at Khurkh Bird Ringing Station alongside our trusty “go anywhere” Russian vehicle.
Young volunteers from Sweden and Singapore were manning the ringing station during our visit.

On arrival, we were told by the ringers that they had just caught a probable ORIENTAL CUCKOO in the nets. Without hearing it sing, this species is tricky to separate from COMMON CUCKOO. However, using criteria relating to the number of pale spots on the underside of the primaries and the colour and markings on the innermost underwing coverts, it can be done. Sure enough, the bird the ringers had caught was an ORIENTAL CUCKOO and, being unaware of any of this species being tracked before, we fitted a transmitter to this individual and released it.

The BTO’s cuckoo expert, Chris Hewson, with the ORIENTAL CUCKOO immediately before release

There are records of ORIENTAL CUCKOO from SE Asia and Australia in the northern winter and, intriguingly, according to HBW there is a record of a specimen from Zambia…! Assuming it stays healthy, it’ll be fascinating to see the movements of this bird.

The same day, after heavy rain for several hours in the afternoon, we caught and tagged a male COMMON CUCKOO in the early evening, just a couple of hundred metres from the camp.

On our second full day, the weather was cold, windy and wet for several hours but as soon as the rain stopped, we were out to set up the nets further along the valley.. and within five minutes had caught an incredible five cuckoos!

Setting up the nets

One was a beautiful female ‘hepatic’ (rufous morph) bird, unfortunately too small to carry a tag (there are strict guidelines about the relative weight of the tag and the bird’s body weight to ensure the tag effect is as small as possible), as well as another small ORIENTAL CUCKOO. The other three were good-sized male COMMON CUCKOOS; we fitted tags to two of them and released the third bird after fitting a metal ring (the tagging process can take 30-40 minutes, so we didn’t want the third bird to be waiting around for too long).

This hepatic female was released after being fitted with a metal ring.

After processing these birds, we set off to the local town of Binder to participate in a crane festival. Here we met up with George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation, and joined in the celebration. The art exhibition produced by the local children was magical. Despite encouragement, we couldn’t persuade BTO’s Chris Hewson to represent Team Cuckoo in the Mongolian wrestling competition…!

The visit to the town provided us with an opportunity to visit the local school to speak with the students about the cuckoo project and to invite them to name two of the birds. The students, who have recently set up an “Eco Club”, were impressively knowledgeable about their local birds and were excited to be part of the project.. They quickly put forward several names and, after a vote, decided on two – “нүүдэлчин” (English translation: Nomad) and “Онон” (English translation: Onon), after the local river that runs through the town. The students are looking forward to following “their” birds over the next few weeks, months and hopefully years.

Students put forward ten names
Putting the suggested names to the vote
The two most popular names

Day three saw us travel around 30 minutes from the camp to a small copse on a hillside and no sooner had we arrived than we heard two male COMMON CUCKOOS singing. After setting up the nets, again we quickly caught one of the males. Cuckoo number five was ‘in the bag’ after only two and half days in the field.

Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg releasing the fifth cuckoo to be fitted with a tag at Khurkh

And so, it is with much excitement and expectation that we can introduce the five Mongolian Cuckoos we’ll be tracking..

Names will be given to the currently un-named three cuckoos over the next few weeks.

As with the Beijing Cuckoo Project, we’ve created a special web page which will be updated regularly with the cuckoo’s movements. Already, there’s been a big move by one of the five! Check out the page to find out details. You can also follow their progress via Twitter (@BirdingBeijing).

“Team Cuckoo” would like to express huge thanks to the Mongolian team, especially Nyambayar Batbayar, Batmunkh Davaasuren and Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, to the British Trust for Ornithology and to the Oriental Bird Club and Mr Dick Newell for making the project possible.

We can be sure that these avian travellers will surprise, impress, enthral and, most of all, inspire us. We can’t wait to learn more about these incredible birds.